‘It’s just porn’: Coming to terms with a sexually corrosive culture

Porn Feminism
Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. This essay is drawn from his book The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, published in January 2017 by Spinifex Press. He can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu or through his website, http://robertwjensen.org/.

Although the most compelling critiques of pornography over the past four decades have been articulated by radical feminists, many young people—including women—assume that challenges to the pornographic culture come only from conservative and/or religious perspectives. As a result, secular and liberal folks often assume that they must endorse porn to be cool.

In my quarter-century of teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, I’ve seen many young people capitulate to a pornographic culture they dislike only because they feel they have no choice. But there is an alternative.

The feminist critique of pornography argues that pornography is not just sex on a screen, not merely a natural extension of human sexual desire adapted to modern technology. Feminist critics such as the late Andrea Dworkin pointed out that most pornography is sex within the domination/subordination dynamic of patriarchy, with the primary dynamic being male domination and female subordination.

Said simply: Pornography is one way in a patriarchal society that male dominance is eroticised, that male power is made sexually exciting. Yes, women use pornography as well, and yes there are many different kinds of sexually explicit material, including gay male and lesbian pornography. But the pornography industry makes most of its money selling images of objectified female bodies for male sexual pleasure.

A few years ago I summarised for a group of young women this feminist critique (which they had never heard), and when I finished one of the students (in her early 20s) suggested that older people (such as myself, then in my mid-50s) were out of step with young people, including young women. Yes, some pornography is nasty, she said, but she and her friends don’t get all worked up—it’s just porn.

I offered a hypothetical to test her assertion: Imagine that heterosexual women in your social network are asked out by two guys. The men are equivalent in all the ways that matter to you—sense of humour, intelligence, appearance—and the only clear difference is that one regularly masturbates to pornography and the other never looks at it. Who would you rather go out with? The student winced and acknowledged that she—and most, if not all, of her friends—would choose the non-porn user.

Why the disparity between the stated commitment to being porn-friendly and the actual preference in partners? Further conversation with those students, and many others, suggests that without having ever read a feminist critique, women know what pornography is (male dominance made sexually arousing) and how men use it (as a masturbation facilitator, which helps condition their sexual imaginations to that dominance). But these same women feel a sense of resignation about contemporary pop culture; there’s simply nowhere to turn if one wants to move in “normal” social circles.

Do heterosexual women want partners whose sexual imagination has been shaped by making women’s subordination a sexual turn-on? “There’s no sense in asking them to stop using it,” one woman told me, “because they won’t.”

Some men refuse to change, but other men see the compelling reason to stop using women this way. This feminist analysis is still available, woven into the approach of groups such as Culture Reframed, which calls today’s porn-saturation “the public health crisis of the digital age.” (Disclosure: I am a member of the Culture Reframed board.)

Perhaps some women profess not to be bothered by pornography when they believe they have no options, and if they have never heard of the feminist critique of pornography they cannot consider how this radical analysis can help people—women and men—find ways to help create a less sexually corrosive culture.

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About Robert Jensen 5 Articles
Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, a founding board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center, and a member of the board of Culture Reframed.

1 Comment

  1. Okay, so by “porn” you apparently solely mean heterosexual, despite mentioning there is gay porn and lesbian porn (I might also add many, many more types that don’t fall into this too). How do you get to the generalization that all heterosexual porn reflects and reinforces patriarchy by showing male dominance? Sure, there is that, but just as LGBT porn exists, straight porn too is more diverse.

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